What the COVID Stimulus Reveals About Congressional Divides

By: Adam Beddawi, Policy Analyst

5 min readDec 24, 2020

Citizens and civil society advocates have been clamoring for a piece of economic stimulus and recovery legislation since the CARES Act was passed on March 27 of this past year. In the time since, the COVID-19 death toll has skyrocketed, over 100,000 small businesses have closed in the past nine months — many for good — and city and state government budgets have cratered. Within a week’s time, crucial benefits programs (unemployment assistance, paid leave, penalty-free retirement withdrawal) authorized under the CARES Act and Families First Coronavirus Response Act legislation will expire.

The health, social, and economic consequences of the pandemic were simmering throughout the year; they lorded over the 2020 Presidential Election. At the crux of the matter was how the government would respond to all of the agonies wrought on the broader American population.

This was also the broader context surrounding negotiations over the omnibus spending bill, a bill which would have determined funding totals for the upcoming year. In addition, it included amounts allocated toward immediate coronavirus relief. For that reason, the negotiations illuminated government fiscal priorities. While Congress’ inability to secure more than $600 in direct cash stimulus has been the news headliner of the week, the Democrats were able to extract some key concessions from the Republican side. Importantly, President Trump’s impromptu request to raise the stimulus amount to $2,000 may ultimately bear fruit for those eligible (individuals making less than $75,000; couples making less than $150,000).

But coronavirus relief extends beyond the direct cash stimulus. In regards to unemployment insurance, the Democrats secured an extension of non-expired CARES Act provisions (Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), and 50% reimbursement for government and nonprofit employers until March 14, 2021. The Senate counter-proposal included no such extensions. They also secured $3 billion to reimburse hospitals and healthcare providers for COVID-19 expenses and lost revenue, and $13 billion for nutrition assistance programs, including SNAP. In terms of Housing assistance, they secured $50 billion in emergency rental assistance and $5 billion in grants toward assisting the homeless, among other provisions. In terms of small business protections, they also secured $284.45 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with more specific limitations on which excluded institutions could access PPP benefits. For instance, publicly traded corporations were excluded, while specific amounts (in the billions of dollars worth) were sectioned off for small businesses and cultural institutions like theaters and live venues. They also allotted $9 billion worth of capital investment toward Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Minority Depository Institutions (MDIs). Importantly, the bill does not include a corporate immunity provision which would have limited corporate liability for any COVID-19-related personal injury claims, medical malpractice claims, and violations of labor and employment laws. In terms of vaccine distribution, the bill allocates $4 billion toward GAVI, an international alliance geared toward vaccine production and distribution, which counts the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation among its core partners.

Among the disappointments in the negotiations process include the Congress’ failure to codify an OSHA standard to protect workers from COVID-19, their silence on the human costs of coronavirus’ spread within jails, prisons, and detention facilities, failure to provide the maximum Affordable Care Act (ACA) subsidy for unemployed workers, lessened amounts for farmers and ranchers (down $7 billion from the Senate Republicans’ proposal), and inability to prohibit price gouging on consumer goods and services including PPE, drugs, hand sanitizers, and healthcare services. Also, rather than extending the requirement for employers to provide emergency paid sick leave and paid family leave, the bill would allow employers and self-employed individuals to claim tax credits for voluntarily provided emergency paid leave that is provided through March 31, 2021.

In a press conference, President Trump highlighted the exorbitant amounts of funding directed to foreign countries in the omnibus spending bill. Notably, Congress earmarked $500 million for Israel to continue development of a missile defense program and other technological warfare capacities, in addition to billions of dollars worth of aid to American allies and military satellites. Of course, these amounts are only comparable by dint of the fact that national security and pandemic relief were rolled into the same spending package. The funding support was likely headed to those countries already, though the fact that the government is nearing a shutdown due to .

However, the disparities are jarring. More importantly, they are consistent with the United States’ fundamental commitment to national security over and above human security. It is this preference which allowed both parties to prioritize the electoral benefits of prolonged negotiation, rather than direct aid to American citizens. Party leadership bludgeoned the other in the press, but only when it was politically expedient to do so. The real victims of this high-stakes hardball were the working families of America, and the soul of this country that the President-Elect desires to save.

In a sense, this consensus preference for national security characterizes the negotiations and charts the path forward. Throughout the past nine months, while party leadership and the Treasury Department haggled over which scant funds to trickle down to the American working and small business ownership classes, a less powerful contingent of representatives and interest groups pushed to shrink the Pentagon Budget, address food insecurity, and more generally trend government focus away from national security issues to those of human security. Moving forward, both parties must reestablish their connections with the American majority, in order that their coalitional interests include American families as much as they do large interest groups, corporations, and military technology companies.

At the heart of this effort is the necessity of protecting America’s most vulnerable communities from the crisis tendency of contemporary capitalism. In this context, national security is crucial, but so too is human security. Rather than replace one another, national and human security should form a complementary whole. It is our task to meld them together as two parts of one government effort to restabilize America as the beacon of pluralism it still promises to be.

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